LARGO — Handyman Thomas J. Lafoe, on trial for the murder of community actor Jeff Norton, changed his plea to guilty Friday and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
Norton, who acted in theaters around the Tampa Bay area and managed the theater facility at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, was found dead in his house two years ago, with his head bashed in.
The Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner said distinctive wounds on Norton's skull could have matched the handle of a fencing sword he kept in his house for use in mock stage combat.
Lafoe, 59, sometimes mowed the lawn of Norton's St. Petersburg home and was caught on store cameras buying goods with Norton's credit card the day before the body was discovered.
He also confessed to the murder, police said.
Prosecutors put on evidence for two days and the trial was set to resume Friday morning with the defense side of the case. Then Lafoe came into the courtroom and admitted his guilt.
According to testimony, Lafoe gave various accounts of what happened that night, assistant state attorney William Loughery said. In interviews with detectives, Lafoe said a crack cocaine dealer wanted to rob Norton and ordered Lafoe at gunpoint to bludgeon the actor.
A jail inmate testified that Lafoe said the killing occurred after he and Norton argued over drugs. On Friday, Lafoe again said a drug dealer was present and things got out of control.
Lafoe said he was a life-long cocaine user. An autopsy showed that Norton had cocaine in his system when he died.
Norton, 55, was widely admired in the theater community, which set up local acting awards in his honor.
He volunteered for nonprofit programs that used acting to help young people with troubled pasts.
Norton's friends filled half the courtroom seats in symbolic support for their deceased friend.
Norton was "a very, very wonderful, kind-hearted man. His spirit is still with us today,'' said his cousin, Sarasota resident Tommy Pettiti. "He would not have wanted (Lafoe) to get the death penalty. He wouldn't have wanted to see anyone killed. He was not a violent man.''